Jean Vanier died May 7, 2019. The way he lived his life and the words he wrote have had a profound affect upon me—and my life choices.
On Tuesday as accolades piled up at Facebook and social media, I was struck with how much this gentle man impacted others. You see, he dwelled with the least of these: people with intellectual disabilities. For someone destined for greatness and titles, he gave it up to live modestly, sincerely, and without pretense. To give dignity to others.
Jean Vanier came from privilege as a son of the British monarchy’s representative in Canada. After stints in the British and Canadian navies, he considered becoming a Catholic priest. He attended seminary getting a PhD in Philosophy with a dissertation on Aristotle in regards to happiness. In the early 1960s, when he traveled to France to see his spiritual mentor, a member of the Dominican order then serving as a chaplain at a home for people with intellectual disabilities. He found what he described as a “chaotic atmosphere of violence and uproar.” Some patients were shackled. Those who were not did little but walk in circles. Especially disturbing to Mr. Vanier was their screams. The scene was typical of mental institutions around the world at the time.
Thus his life took an unexpected turn—he asked if he could remove 2 of the asylum’s residents and live with them in a small house. It was a peer-to-peer relationship, he saw these brothers as having a lot to offer. He grew as a human being.
That house was the first of 154 communities across 38 countries that today form the network known as L’Arche. In 2015 Jean Vanier was awarded the Templeton Prize honoring “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Bestowed by the U.S.-based John Templeton Foundation, the prize was worth approximately $1.7 million.
I was struck by reading the various tributes how Vanier lived his life in contrast to society. “We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” He valued failure—how opposite is that?
The same day as his death I read about the US College Scandal: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-47963633
Where parents have done their damnedest to get their kids into prestigious colleges—even breaking the law. It’s all about advance, advance, don’t retreat. Win, win, win. Kids today have to be the best, the smartest, carve out a niche for their college essays by being unique. Well, not everyone can be unique, literally we’d all be unique, and therefore, no one would be unique.
“The fear of failure, of feeling helpless and unable to cope, had been built up in me ever since my childhood. I had to be a success. I had to prove my worth. I had to be right. This need to succeed and to be accepted, even admired by my parents and by those whom I considered my “superiors,” was a strong motivating force in me and is a motivation at the heart of many human endeavours.”
― Jean Vanier, Becoming Human
“I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”
- Community And Growth, Jean Vanier
The upside world of Jean Vanier is that in succeeding we lose, that in failing we progress, can go forward. It is the same paradox found in I Corinthians 1:26-28 Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly and despised things of the world, and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are,…
I’m wondering if in fact we should teach our children the privilege of losing, the importance of failure. The BBC article I linked to above asks the question: How important is an elite college degree? We certainly know it isn’t worth the price. Only the wealthiest can afford a 4-year degree from Harvard, Stanford, Yale.
I remember when my daughter graduated from college and was writing short stories (she still is). She had an acceptance in the inaugural issue of Goreyesque and was offered a public reading at Loyola University downtown Chicago. We were so awfully proud. Afterwards there was a reception. A man came up to us. I expected him to say he enjoyed Grace’s reading or to comment on her story, instead he asked how she got into The New School. He had a daughter/son he’d like to go there. Well, I wanted to say, first you have to get out of the box—but why bother since he didn’t even know he was in a box. He had no idea what was important. Some things money cannot buy.
Jean Vanier knew this and lived his life accordingly.